Wednesday 26 March 2014

Brussels, Brontë, Jenkins: My great-great-grandparents Rev. Evan and Eliza Jenkins and the Brontës

Monica Kendall tells of her search for her relatives in Brussels.

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë, published two years after Charlotte’s death, Mrs Gaskell comments that when she was researching the biography and visited Brussels:

Mrs. Jenkins told me that she used to ask them [Emily and Charlotte] to spend Sundays and holidays with her, until she found that they felt more pain than pleasure from such visits. (Gaskell, 1997: 162)

I am the great-great-granddaughter of that Mrs Jenkins (her name was Eliza, née Jay), and of Rev. Evan Jenkins, the British Chaplain in Brussels from 1825 until his death in 1849. Until October 2013 I knew quite a bit about the Jenkins family in Brussels, though mostly in the second half of the nineteenth century, but knew nothing about our connection with the Brontës. It’s a mystery why there are no anecdotes in the family. But thanks to hugely helpful people who responded to my interest (and an inordinate number of emails I sent) I finally arrived in Brussels in February 2014 to investigate. It was the same month Charlotte and Emily arrived, 172 years before – rather more quickly (by Eurostar from London where I live) than the Brontës had managed!

But first, grateful thanks to the following for their support, time, help and information: Brian Bracken, Mme Jacqueline Charade and all at the Chapel Royal, Roger Cox, Robyn Crosslé, the staff at the Evere cemetery, Jones Hayden for a wonderful walk around Brontë Brussels, Renate, cousin Suzie Walker, Marcia Watson and above all to Helen MacEwan, of the Brussels Brontë Group, who not only found more Jenkins graves than I could have possibly hoped for, and rubbed off moss with Renate before I visited, but recommended my (excellent) hotel, found time to answer all my emails, saved me from howlers and organized my Saturday which ended up with a descendant of the Hegers and descendant of the Jenkinses downing (in my case) copious amounts of wine in a wonderfully convivial way which I will always treasure.

A Jenkins descendant meets a Heger descendant:
M. Francois Fierens (great-great-great-grandson of Constantin
Heger) and Monica Kendall (great-great-granddaughter of Rev.
Evan and Eliza Jenkins), Brussels, February 2014
What follows is my journey and discoveries in Brussels over three days.

St Bernard’s School, New York and what happened next ... and before
In 2000 I wrote an article for my grandfather’s school magazine, entitled ‘My Grandfather Jack’. My grandfather, John Card Jenkins (1874–1958), founded a school in New York in 1904 called St Bernard’s. It is an extraordinary and unique prep school for boys and I have visited it twice – as recently as autumn 2011. My article was accurate: but with one big error about the Jenkins church in Brussels (see below)! My research for it was based on his elder sisters’ scrapbooks that went to my mother Dorice on their deaths (my last great-aunt died in 1954). They were the daughters of Rev. John Card Jenkins (1834–94) who had been an Anglican chaplain in Brussels, after his father and elder brother. I found then that the roots of the school in New York lay in Brussels in the 1820s, with Rev. Evan and Mrs Jenkins.
My mother, Dorice Kendall, née Jenkins, remembered stories of Brussels from her parents (both British, who were born or grew up there), and in my article I tried to describe Brussels of the nineteenth century. I mentioned the Brontës in passing: ‘In this city ... Emily and Charlotte Brontë came to study languages in the early 1840s, and Charlotte returned to teach and found unrequited love.’ That’s all! Alas no one emailed me to say: But haven’t you read Mrs Gaskell’s biography? I hadn’t, nor it seems had any member of the Jenkins family, and I hadn’t even read Villette!

What happened next, 13 years later, was one of those strange coincidences that change everything: I am an academic book editor, and I just happened in autumn 2013 to be copy-editing a book that included a chapter on Charlotte Brontë’s extraordinary novel Villette (a fictional name for Brussels). I decided to buy the book since my ancestors were in Brussels at the same time Charlotte had been there. Then out of the blue my cousin Suzie Walker (née Jenkins) asked for the number of the Jenkins home in Rue St Bernard in Brussels as her artist daughter was about to visit (I am the historian of the family!). Suddenly Suzie emailed telling me to try googling this combination: Brussels, Brontë, Jenkins. I did so, intrigued. Suzie tells me she had just idly tried doing that combination as she explored her Jenkins roots and had found something amazing. And I came across Brian Bracken’s blog on the Brussels Brontë Group website about finding the whereabouts of the Jenkins home in Chaussée d’Ixelles: the house that Charlotte and Emily had ‘visited’ on several occasions in 1842–43. I was astounded. The Brontë sisters knew my ancestors?

My research took off. I began to email total strangers, including Helen via the Group website, and Roger Cox, who had written a booklet on the Anglicans in Brussels, and then read as much as I could after work. And wonderfully most people responded! After a few weeks I knew I had to go to Brussels. Helen suggested a good time would be in February 2014 for Eric Ruijssenaars’ talk for the Group on the Isabelle Quarter where the Brontë sisters had stayed and learned. I booked my Eurostar ticket. So what did I find?

Monday 17 March 2014


On 15 February, for our first event of the year we were pleased to welcome Eric Ruijssenaars, who gave us a fascinating slide show of pictures relating to the research he did for his two books, Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land: The Pensionnat Heger and other Brontë places in Brussels (2000) and The Pensionnat Revisited; More light shed on the Brussels of the Brontës (2003). Eric guided us on a virtual walk of the area round the Pensionnat. Many of those present have already been on one of our actual guided walks and this presentation provided an opportunity to gain a fuller picture of the area and its history. Eric, who lives in Leiden and has been researching the subject for the last twenty-five years, is always delighted to return to Brussels and his old Brontë haunts here.

Eric has written the following about his Brontës in Brussels research:

Eric Ruijssenaars
It is 25 years ago that I started doing research on the Brussels of the Brontës, aiming to recreate the Isabella quarter for her, the lady who had introduced me to Villette. Over the next decades I looked at every book and picture I could get hold of, in archives and libraries, to try to understand what the old quarter had looked like in the days of the Brontës. In 1990 I visited Brussels and the quarter for the first time, with Elle. I remember the excitement of standing on the Belliard Steps, though obviously having no real idea of the world ‘down these Steps’, and what it would all bring. Most recently, my talk for the BBG.

The Tahon photograph
Of invaluable importance was and is the iconic Tahon photo of the quarter, supposedly dating from 1909. For many years it hung on the wall at my desk. The crucial breakthrough came in 2003, when I took the picture to a photography professor of Leiden University. She said it must be an 1850s photograph. It’s possibly the highlight of these 25 years. Finally we fully understood the quarter. By implication it shows us the quarter as it was in 1843.

With all we had gathered then, it had become possible to do a sort of virtual walk through the old quarter, in the mind. Just as I can easily imagine walking in, for instance the quarter as it is now. I hope that those who joined my walk can agree.
Hotel Ravenstein, circa 1920

One of my last and nicest discoveries was the following picture:

 It’s a picture of the area where the Terarckenstraat now ends (with Hotel Ravenstein on the right). This time though we only need to climb over the gate to continue our walk, ‘through the mist of time’ (unfortunately I forgot to say that at my talk). At the same time it’s also a sad reminder of the very charming quarter that not long before had been demolished.

Eric Ruijssenaars